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Interview Hindi Marathi

The desire to create something new has fuelled what I do: Viacom18 COO Ajit Andhare

In an exclusive interview, Viacom18 Motion Pictures chief operating officer Ajit Andhare discusses the business of making films, his career in television and cinema, and the future of the industry.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Sonal Pandya

The first thing that strikes you about the large, cheery Viacom18 office building at Vile Parle in Mumbai, once you get past the stringent security, is the numerous, gleaming trophies peeking out from every corner. The young studio has racked up plenty of accolades for its diverse films over the years.

Beginning with Singh Is Kinng (2008), the studio has never looked back. As it ventures into newer terrain in the digital space and continues to expand into different Indian languages, Ajit Andhare, the busy-yet-cool chief operating officer of Viacom18 Motion Pictures, sat down with Cinestaan.com to discuss his journey at the helm of the studio and share his views on the changes (or lack thereof) in the film industry.

In a freewheeling conversation lasting almost an hour, Andhare dwelt upon his career in television and cinema, the processes at Viacom18 Motion Pictures, and the challenges before the film industry. Excerpts:

From an engineering background to television software and now cinema and web-series, how has the journey been so far?

It has been very exciting and rewarding. Within engineering, I was always drawn to the side of making things. I had these notions of being an inventor. One of the passion gadgets I wanted to design, which I worked on, was a chapati maker. There was a lot of draw towards using that craft to build something new.

What always fascinated me is that this thing didn’t exist and it exists now because somebody thought it up. So, while the journey looks uncommon, throughout this journey what was common is seeking to build something new. I have not, in that sense, perceived any major change in the way I approach things.

In those days, I was coming up with engineering solutions. In television, it was trying to come up with solutions which would take the form of scripts if not equipment. But there is an element of design that is common. These days, you have a term for it — design thinking. Which is, you think bottom up, where you say what is it that I am seeking to do and then, step-by-step, try and fill up.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Did you have a specific goal in mind when you took charge as COO at Viacom18? To what extent have you achieved it? What new goals you have set for yourself?

When I took charge, the whole idea was that it’s such a tough business to run that you should just be able to be on the rails and not fall off. That means being able to manage the risks that come with the business, because the nature of the business is risky. Therefore, my goal was to find everything that allows me to manage this fundamental risk in the business better.

That has been the guiding force, and that has meant that we creatively take new risks and do new things. But financially we try and be risk-averse and mitigate risk. It appears contradictory, but what it means is that creatively you try and do what has not been done while financially you try and secure your business and de-risk as much as possible, whether it’s about looking at revenue streams, pre-box office, or finding other revenue streams to reduce the dependency on the box office.

That was the problem to solve that I took upon myself and that has been the attempt throughout. Of course, a lot has changed, because now the model has significantly improved from what it was. Filmmaking has become far more productive in terms of the economic outcome.

You think so? Is it true for all filmmakers or only for Viacom18?

In general, true for everyone, because the ecosystem has had the improvements of digital and satellite monetization that has significantly reduced the box office risk. I think that’s one major change. Of course, it’s not equal for all and those who have managed it better will be able to take more advantage of their own efficacies of running the business. But the terrain has improved for everyone.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

What would you say is the importance of the box office now for a filmmaker? Let’s say it was 90%, with only music and television rights 20 years ago. What has it come down to?

As a studio, you would look to cut it down to almost 50%. You don’t succeed all the time, but you can do it more often than not. And therefore to your point that it’s no longer 90% which made it fundamentally very risky. Everything was tagged to the box office success. So that has improved. But irrespective of that, that was always the approach I had taken, to try and limit the amount of box office exposure by doing a lot of pre-sales and securing revenues prior to the film’s release.

Tell us something about Viacom18’s process of green-lighting a project. How deep is your involvement at this stage?

Oh, ‘involved’ is not the correct term. That’s all I do! It's central to our ways of approaching how to make films because at the heart of it is a choice, whether you are going to make it or not. Then, of course, there is the subsequent choice of how you are going to make it.

Our frontline creative team has to be the champion and stand up for some story that they hear, in terms of a first narration or reading, and all of that has to rise up within the creative function. If a project or story is exciting and looks unique, that’s when I consider it for green-lighting.

It’s a process which involves identification, selection at one level, and then a decision-making component at the other level. This is to do with projects that are incoming. There are many which are getting developed within the studio, wherein you are hunting for ideas from where you will develop stories and then attach writers and develop the script and screenplay. So that organic process of developing a film from scratch is something I’ve been keen on making central to the way the studio functions. I’m happy we have reached that stage now.

Viacom18 produced biopics like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) and Mary Kom (2014), following which there has been a spate of biopics in Hindi cinema. Is there a danger of overdoing it?

Yes and no. Anything creative, if overdone, you will lose interest. That goes without saying. But I think we attach the label of biopic a little too loosely. Two films could be very different stories and somebody may call them biopics.

I don’t think people get drawn by the labels that are attached. That the trade does, you and I do later. A story organically attracts people. Therefore, I’m not too worried about the labels. Of course, there is a consciousness that you just don’t look like you are doing only one kind of work. That’s a pitfall anyone must be cautious about.

How do you see the changing audience tastes over the past decade and a half? Which of it has surprised or excited you the most?

There have been a lot of surprises and that is a great thing because it tells you that different kinds of films and stories are getting embraced. We are in the midst of a very exciting time. If you see this year, the range of films that have succeeded, from Uri: A Surgical Strike (2019) to a Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020), and take the films in between; there have been several like Bala (2019) or Dream Girl (2019). The best thing about the year is that it’s hard to capture it in a label. All kinds of films are working as long as they have unique and great stories.

We always praise our voters in elections. I think we should also praise our audience. They are very mature and always have this way of finding out what is a good story. I can’t think of an example [last year] where a good film was ignored, or the audience managed not to find it.

This is what is a great source of excitement, that we are not limited by what succeeded in the past; we have broken the mould. We are far more open to new stories, and I think within that there is so much more that can be done.

Do you think the draw that stars used to guarantee is a thing of the past? Does this make things easier for production houses or more difficult?

Stars will always remain a draw. We are an ‘and’ republic. Stars are a draw, and a good story is a draw, and a new concept is a draw, and something else that you can come up with which surprises me is a draw. It’s good to be in an ‘and’ country because it opens up so many possibilities. You can look at Sooryavanshi (2020) and that entire franchise that Rohit [Shetty] is developing, it’s as star-led and classical entertaining cinema as it gets. That works.

Look at some of our comedic franchises like Golmaal, Dhamaal, they are all living and breathing and thriving. A big mindless but highly entertaining comedy finds an audience, an Article 15 (2019) finds an audience, an inspirational film like Mission Mangal (2019) finds an audience, a satirical film like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) finds an audience. All possibilities exist. You have to choose and say how do I want to make it.

Filmmaking is expensive even without raw stock, and without a sharp eye budgets can easily go through the roof. How do you keep tabs on this aspect of the business?

It’s tough because there is a lot of demand on the content-making side. What has happened is that other than the ecosystems of filmmaking and TV, you now have another ecosystem of digital, so there is tremendous demand for the same technicians, the same factors of production which are used to make film or TV, for a full third segment, and that has a direct implication on costs. If only so much of talent is going to be in high demand, then costs are going to be driven up.

You can manage it operationally to an extent and not get carried away because ultimately you have to balance the entire PnL [profit and loss] and look at how your revenue will answer to these risen costs as well.

You have made quite a few Marathi films in the past couple of years. How similar or different is the process of choosing to produce or finance projects in Marathi, or other regional languages, as against Hindi?

Our journey in regional cinema is not limited to Marathi. We have done other films: mainstream films with A-list talent in Tamil, we recently had a film with Karthi. We have done two films with Nagarjuna in Telugu. We have done a film with Dileep in Malayalam, and we also did Nikka Zaildar 3 (2019) in Punjabi, so our regional portfolio pretty much covers all the major film markets.

Each market has its uniqueness. Marathi is far more story-driven and a lot less responsive to the star draw, and that’s why you see some of the most original work comes from Marathi. For example, in Katyar Kaljat Ghusli (2015), or in our film Aani... Kashinath Ghanekar (2018), we had very encouraging response.

Each market has its own aesthetics and each audience responds to those aesthetics. You need to understand those aesthetics. That’s why in regional [cinema], we have been careful to go with partners, because I don’t think for us it’s possible to understand every single market in all its nuances and rule like a sultanate from Mumbai. So we have able partners who bring in their experience and input and we have combined with them to address each of these different language markets.

Any aspect of the business where you find that your training as an engineer comes in handy?

It’s more a desire as an engineer to create something new which has fuelled what I do. But, of course, a structured approach to thinking helps. Just look at a story graph, or even if you look at the definition of what makes a good screenplay, that’s not very different from what you do in a more structured field like engineering.

There is a lot of structure in the creative world, which often doesn’t get spoken about, because then it’s not sexy. Everybody wants the creative world to be absolutely without structure, and it’s just magic that happens. I have no problem letting people be happy with that notion. I don’t want to spoil the party. Everybody’s high with this thought of art as this exotic thing that nobody knows anything about, so let them be happy.

What changes would you like to see in the film business?

There is clearly scope for far more collaboration. It’s very hard to achieve at the moment, because individual filmmakers, producers, studios, all need to become more cohesive in the manner the business is conducted, and we will be able to get to a much better shape of industry. There are, of course, bigger issues like piracy which seem to have been accepted.

This is the great evil that never goes away. I think we can do far better than what we are doing to tackle piracy. We can do far better to try and bring some method in the way we seek stories. Even today, in the new millennium, the way of finding a story is the same that could have been there many years ago. Somehow the story will find a decision maker and magically the film will get made. Or not.

There is great scope for leveraging technology. Are we able to harness all the people who have ideas and want to tell stories? Can we harness a lot of people for story ideas? As an industry, our ways are still very archaic and that is because we continue to smoke up on the thought that this is art and therefore needs no refinement of method. If we recognize that there is a lot of method here, we will find new ways of doing it.

I think the industry still can be given a lot more opportunity in terms of expanding. If you look at the number of screens in the country, it’s a very small medium. People think of films as big. It’s big in their heads. As a business, it’s very small. Television broadcasting is a far bigger, gargantuan business.

There is a lot of value creation the industry does, but it cannot do value capture. So, for example, if hundreds of thousands of watchmen in their night watch are watching a film on their phones, they are seeing the actor, they are having that enjoyment of consuming that film, but where is the value getting generated? And is that value going back to the maker? No, it’s lost in piracy.

A business which cannot capture the value it generates is not a very good business. Which is why we have not managed to grow beyond a level. We have been growing fair enough, but we are nowhere compared to what the potential is. We are all trying to swim within very small puddles, while there is a massive ocean that is unexplored.

We were obsessed with the West for a long time, and I don’t think we have been successful beyond a point in trying to cross cultures. Now suddenly we have this China phenomenon which we weren’t even trying, and Aamir [Khan] and a few other people showed the way, and suddenly you are a cultural force! That level of thinking should be far more.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Hollywood's footprint in India is growing rapidly. Do you see it as a threat to original Indian cinema? What do Indian filmmakers need to do to stay relevant and in business?

It is an operational challenge, in terms of exhibition and release of films. All you have are these 52 weekends and now there are more films that compete for the same weekends.

I don’t think it is a threat because it is a very different audience that responds to Hollywood. And you will always have a growing audience for a product which is potent, has good potential, good quality. You can’t lock that product away and hope nobody sees this.

That’s not the best way to grow our films. We should make our films more compelling so people choose these over and above the same old formulaic Hollywood because, make no mistake, Hollywood is very formulaic. For all the original work they do, those films don’t work in India. What works here is your formulaic tentpole Avengers franchise and all of that.

We have to look at our products and instead of worrying that Hollywood is threatening them, we have to invert it and say okay, how can I go and create three Chinas? How can I open up Turkey and make more of Western Europe see a Hindi film? Or how can I make more of world cinema? We should draw a bigger sky and say everybody is flying, there is plenty of space.

Tell us about Tipping Point, Viacom18’s move into the digital space. What kind of content are you looking to explore?

(In a promotional voice) Stories that will make you lose your sleep! Quite literally what that means is stories that will be binge-worthy, hopefully. Stories that will be engrossing, engaging, and not let you go and do something else, but get hooked.

Tipping Point is the storyteller’s revenge on the film world. When you make films, you realize it’s a world full of constraints and filters. So many stories and so few films. So many stories cannot end up as films because of the very nature of the way films have to be exhibited in theatres, so you need to have a certain balance of, as we discussed, star power.

This is a product that gets distributed in a physical way; it goes out in theatres and suffers from all those challenges. So, the making also presents all those challenges. Then, of course, there is the aspect of censors and what is acceptable, and you are again telling stories to a critical mass because you want your film to succeed upon exhibition. You have to make it appeal to what is a large enough segment which will make it work. There is no such restriction when it comes to digital. Theoretically you can make a story even for one person.

Your segments are much smaller, you can play in the long tail. You don’t have the censor issue. And it therefore opens the canvas so much wider. We have been making films for a long time, and we had a plethora of stories which we thought were great stories to tell, but the medium was a restriction. That is where the idea of Tipping Point came.

If we are able to tell many of these stories in the digital world, then we will have greater opportunity to bring them out. Otherwise they will simply lie in the desk which has all the scripts of films that were never made.

So Tipping Point is a breath of fresh air. It’s like suddenly a room got opened and you can do so much more.

Is it restricted to Hindi or will it move into other languages as well?

At the moment, our focus is on Hindi because there is plenty to tell in Hindi. We have just rolled out our first three series and a fourth is in the making. But yes, like in films we moved from Hindi to regional, we will also look at doing regional digital work. There is a lot of audience out there, and that is really the motivation for somebody wanting to tell stories.

What changes do you see in television content today from the time you were a TV producer?

Television is a medium which has its own reality. It is trying to cater to the largest common denominator and that’s very hard to achieve and be creative at the same time. If you look at the various attempts that are happening, whether it is reality, whether it is the kind of stories you see in fiction, much has changed and much has remained the same.

You don’t see that level of new thinking you see in digital or films, but I’m not saying that in a condescending way. That is the nature of the medium. If my audience is going to be the staggering mass which needs to come on day and night, in and out, by appointment viewing, I think that requires a kind of storytelling.

What forthcoming projects of your company are you most excited about?

The big one is Laal Singh Chaddha (2020) because what we are doing is very ambitious. The film in itself is a nuanced, complex film and then to have it adapted in Hindi, it’s a very exciting journey. Working with Aamir, there is a huge amount of learning in the way he approaches the making process and at the same time, there is great joy in seeing so many similarities in what we do here and how I have seen him operate from close quarters. So it’s very reassuring.

Other than that, a whole lot of time is consumed in Shabaash Mithu (2021) because it’s a completely homegrown project. It’s being written in the studio, it has been conceptualized here and therefore we are going to be a little extra passionate about it, not that we are any less passionate about the others.

As we see what is happening in general in society when it comes to women expressing themselves in newer fields and that happening within cricket, I’m hugely drawn to that area personally, therefore there is a lot of excitement in making that film.

Besides, there is a lot of work happening in the digital space because there are multiple platforms and we have had some great success with some of the early work we have done. Jamtara was lauded by people while it was completely without any packaging of faces. Pure acting talent is what powered [it] and pure writing and direction. We are very enthused with the kind of response [for it], or even Taj Mahal 1989, where again it’s a very different series, running counter to what is happening on web today, and even that has found huge appreciation. So there is a very ambitious project currently that we are doing with one of the platforms, that is also taking a lot of time and energy.

Andhare with Ayushmann Khurrana and family (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

Finally, Viacom18 has produced many good films and hits over the years, but which is the one that you are most proud of?

If I had to choose, I would choose Andhadhun (2018), for the simple reason that it’s not an everyday script. It’s also not a film that announces itself on concept. It was very nuanced. We spent a lot of time on it in development. It was a genre breaker. You can’t point something like that in the industry and say a film like that. It was unique.

The other reason why I would like to single it out is for its success that we foresaw in China. We opened a new door there, without, let’s say, a Khan or a social issue as people used to say are the two drivers of success in China. We demonstrated with Andhadhun that if you understand the intelligent multiplex audience and can find a way to entertain and connect with them in India, you can do so in China as well.

So whether in terms of sheer originality of concept, the amount of time we spent in development, the sheer structure of the film, the open-ended conclusion, all of this was very ingenious and I’m very proud that’s something that we did.